Legal Guide

      What is a Motion for Summary Judgment?

       Written by: Michael S. Haber 

       Summary:  A motion for summary judgment is a motion that
asks the court to let one party win without a trial.   Such a  motion is usually made by a defendant, asking the court to dismiss the  case. 

1    Background

Most of us know what a trial is.  It's a hearing at which evidence is presented, witnesses testify, and (usually) a jury observes the entire proceeding.  The job of the jury is to establish what facts are "proven" and what facts are not proven.   At the end of the trial, the judge instructs the jury as to the law that the jury should apply to the facts that the jury has established.  In other words, the jury determines what happened and the judge tells them what law to apply to it.

2    Motions

A motion is an application or request to a court.  Most cases involve an array of motions.  There may be an early motion to dismiss the case. 
There may be a motion to amend the complaint.  There may be a motion 

for summary judgment.  There may be various motions made at trial.    A motion may be procedural in nature or it may be substantive.   A motion is said to be "dispositive" if it is a motion that could lead to the end of the case.


3    Motion for Summary Judgment

A motion for summary judgment is a request to the court (by either party but usually by defendant) to resolve the case without a trial.   The motion is most often made after the end of the period of discovery (the phase of a lawsuit in which the parties exchange information and conduct depositions) when a trial would be the next step.   The motion is an attempt to sidestep a trial.  

The premise in a motion for summary judgment is that all of the evidence amassed thus far suggests that there is no genuine issue of material fact; in other words, that there is no real dispute as to the important facts and that therefore there is no need for a trial because the judge can simply apply the law to the established and undisputed facts.  In a trial, the judge tells the jury what law to apply to the facts that the jury determines; if indeed there were no genuine issues of material fact, then there is no need for a jury trial.

4    Such Motions Are Very Frequent

Motions for summary judgment are very common.   Although the motion can be made at any point, it is usually made when trial would otherwise be the next step.   Even if the defendant makes a motion for summary judgment and that motion is unsuccessful, the motion may still have been worthwhile to defendant's attorney, because it forces the plaintiff to step forward and show all of his or her evidence.   You wind up showing all your cards because the stakes are so high.   After a motion for summary judgment is fully briefed, there are usually no secrets left in the case (at least as to the party against whom the motion was made).
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